Top 20 Greatest TV Anti-Heroes

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Top 20 Greatest TV Anti-Heroes

VOICE OVER: Rebecca Brayton WRITTEN BY: Nathan Sharp
Forget the heroes, we're all about these TV antiheroes. Our countdown includes "Loki," "The Boys," "Dexter," and more!
Transcript

Top 20 TV Anti-Heroes


Welcome to WatchMojo and today we’re counting down our picks for the Top 20 TV anti-heroes.

For this list, we’ll be looking at the greatest, most interesting, and most influential anti-heroes in television history. We will only be including live action shows, so animated anti-heroes like Rick Sanchez will not be included.

Which of these characters is your favorite? Let us know in the comments below!

#20: Marty Byrde
“Ozark” (2017-)


The first season of “Ozark” was often compared to “Breaking Bad”, and it too starred an anti-hero mixed in the drug business. Played brilliantly by Jason Bateman, Marty Byrde is a financial adviser who launders money for a drug cartel. To save his own life after his partner is killed, Marty promises to launder $500 million through a strip club in the Ozark Mountains. Despite running with the wrong people, Marty nevertheless has a good conscience, which places him lower on this list. But he’s still a complex and fascinating character who often gets himself and his family into trouble via some questionable decisions.

#19: Loki
“Loki” (2021-)


Marvel will do anything to keep their gravy train running, like making numerous alternate dimensions. The result is “Loki”, a crime thriller starring the popular anti-hero who died in “Avengers: Infinity War”. Premiering in 2021, “Loki” earned positive reviews, and Tom Hiddleston’s performance as the titular character drew widespread praise. This is the same old Loki everyone loves from the MCU, only a little bit nicer and a lot funnier. He’s taking the character growth exhibited in “Infinity War” and running with it, offering up a delightful and highly entertaining anti-hero rather than the straightforward villain he is mostly depicted as throughout the MCU.

#18: The Jennings
“The Americans” (2013-18)


While it often flew under the radar in terms of ratings and pop culture discussion, “The Americans” was widely heralded as one of the greatest shows of its time. It follows Elizabeth and Philip Jennings, two KGB spies living and working undercover in Virginia during the Cold War. The Jennings are richly complex, toeing the line between likable and villainous. And the title is not only an ironic twist regarding its protagonists, being that they’re not who they say they are but also hints at what it even means to be American. Philip and Elizabeth proved to be one of the most captivating and realistic married couples on television, which is certainly not what we expected from a Cold War drama.

#17: Billy Butcher
“The Boys” (2019-)


Introduced in 2019, “The Boys” has become one of Amazon Prime Video’s most popular shows, earning critical acclaim for its use of humor and clever subversion of typical superhero tropes. These so-called heroes aren’t noble, but corrupt, violent, and highly conceited. No one hates them more than Billy Butcher, a former SAS operative now working for the CIA. Billy has no superpowers to speak of - only a handy crowbar that he casually uses to butcher superhumans (pun intended). Butcher has allowed revenge to totally consume his thoughts and actions. He is an incredibly unhinged protagonist, but that’s exactly what makes “The Boys” so unique within the oversaturated superhero genre.

#16: Al Swearengen
“Deadwood” (2004-06)


This HBO Western is about the development of the titular town in the American frontier, and Al Swearengen represents the greediest of townsfolk. “Deadwood” is based on historical events, and by all accounts, the real Swearengen was a nasty man. He would often physically intimidate young women into prostitution and collect on their earnings, scoring the modern equivalent of $250,000 in a single night. Ian McShane is absolutely brilliant in the role. He proves despicable as a homicidal, brutal, and tyrannical ruler who does everything in his own self-interest, but he also proves heroic at times and helps lead the lawless town towards annexation to the Dakota Territory. He’s a fantastically complex individual, representing both the worst and best in politics.

#15: Jack Bauer
“24” (2001-10; 2014)


One of the most famous TV characters of the 2000s, Jack Bauer proved the role of Kiefer Sutherland’s career. Bauer is a member of the Counter Terrorist Unit and often thwarts terrorist plots on U.S. soil. But to do so, he often resorted to some controversial actions - primarily torture. Jack’s use of it has long been contentious, with both the military and human rights organizations criticizing the show for its flippant use of physical and psychological torment. In fact, the U.S. Army Brigadier General even met with the producers of “24” to discuss their misrepresentation of torture and its effectiveness. Few other TV heroes have generated such a heated response.

#14: Hannibal Lecter
“Hannibal” (2013-15)


Hannibal Lecter often veers into full-on villain territory, perhaps more than any other character on this list. Hannibal has long been one of the most famous villains in entertainment, proving a psychopathic serial killer and cannibal who has a penchant for manipulating targets. And while the Hannibal of the show is no different, the first two seasons portray him in a somewhat heroic light. He still aids Will Graham in catching other killers, even if it’s to satiate his own bloodlust and turn the emotionally precarious Will into a serial killer. While few may believe that Anthony Hopkins can be topped in the role, Mads Mikkelsen certainly gives him a run for his money.

#13: Eve Polastri
“Killing Eve” (2018-)


This spy thriller is based on the novel “Codename Villanelle”, which itself is a compilation of previously published e-books. At the heart of the story is Eve Polastri, an MI6 agent who is tasked with finding and capturing a killer named Villanelle. However, Eve harbors a dark personality under her heroic exterior, and she soon grows infatuated with Villanelle and the “work” she does. The result is a fascinating moral quandary, as Eve must battle her noble pursuit of taking a killer off the streets and her inner instinct to embrace that very same killer. Come the show’s second season, she even needs to fight the desire to kill, a fight she sometimes loses.

#12: Jimmy McGill
“Better Call Saul” (2015-)


Some people were hesitant regarding a “Breaking Bad” prequel starring Saul Goodman of all people, but the results are fantastic. Saul begins the story as Jimmy McGill, an underachieving but ambitious lawyer who is constantly thwarted by his more successful older brother. Realizing that he will never shed his past as a con artist, Jimmy decides to embrace the art of conning and slowly devolves into the Saul Goodman we know and love. It’s a wonderful and surprisingly emotional character arc, and the show proves just as tragic as its iconic predecessor. We want Jimmy to succeed as a legitimate lawyer, but we also want him to embrace the Saul persona. It’s far more entertaining.

#11: Din Djarin
“The Mandalorian” (2019-)


This Disney+ show is not only one of the most popular programs on the service, but arguably the most well-received entry in the “Star Wars” canon since “The Force Awakens”. The titular Mandalorian is Din Djarin, a battle-hardened bounty hunter of few words and a mysterious past. He is an incredibly ruthless individual who gets a job done no matter the cost of lives. Nothing stands in the way of his target and his blaster pistol. But he also has a heart of gold, as evidenced when he takes in and eventually falls for the adorable Grogu. In a world filled with dark and light, The Mandalorian inhabits an interesting and refreshing gray.

#10: Nucky Thompson
“Boardwalk Empire” (2010-14)


HBO has managed to secure some of the biggest names in film, and in the first half of the 2010s, they had Steve Buscemi. He played Nucky Thompson, a corrupt politician and the de facto ruler of Prohibition-era Atlantic City. Nucky is based on the historical figure Enoch Johnson, who ran bootlegging and other criminal rackets throughout the first half of the 20th century. Nucky lives a double life as a politician and gangster, and he proves a ruthless crime boss who will do anything to protect his vested interests. He has a warmer side, as evidenced through his interactions with friends and family. Business, however, comes first, making Nucky one of the more memorable gangsters on TV.

#9: Nancy Botwin
“Weeds” (2005-12)


This Jenji Kohan black comedy is a vicious indictment on American consumerism and the showy, performative aspects of suburbia. This theme is told through the lens of Nancy Botwin, an upper middle class individual whose husband suddenly dies while jogging. To continue the family’s privileged lifestyle in the absence of her husband’s lucrative salary, Nancy begins selling marijuana out of her home. This eventually blossoms into a full-blown operation, complete with her own strain and the creation of a front organization. Nancy represents the lengths that some will go to to keep up appearances, and she does so through a less-than-reputable source of income.

#8: Nicholas Brody
“Homeland” (2011-20)


This Showtime espionage thriller was one of the most acclaimed dramas of the early 2010s, earning large amounts of praise for its invigorating story and remarkable performances. Damian Lewis won an Emmy for his portrayal of Nicholas Brody, a Marine Corps sniper who returns to the United States after being imprisoned by al-Qaeda. While most welcome his long-anticipated return, CIA officer Carrie Mathison fears that Brody has turned traitor and is working with the organization. She turns out to be correct, as he attempts a bombing underneath the Harry S. Truman Building. The is-he-isn’t-he conundrum proves endlessly captivating, playing on very real fears regarding terrorism and extremists.

#7: Don Draper
“Mad Men” (2007-15)


Just as this show dismantles the ‘60s as some type of idyllic paradise, so too does it dismantle the idea of the machismo male. Don Draper is that machismo male. He is a stereotypical success story - good looking, desirable, and with a great job and a family in the suburbs. But the more the show digs into the character of Don and his mysterious past, the more it reveals him to be a philandering, aimless, deeply unhappy alcoholic with fierce identity issues. He’s nowhere near the show’s most likable character, and he’s often quite caustic to his family and employees. But he’s a sympathetic soul, and we often pity his unending search for happiness.

#6: Jax Teller
“Sons of Anarchy” (2008-14)


Hamlet is one of the greatest anti-heroes in all of fiction, and Jax Teller is basically the modern Hamlet. No, really, “Sons of Anarchy” was directly influenced by “Hamlet” and tells its timeless story through the lens of a California motorcycle club. Jax Teller begins the show as a relatively harmless member, hoping to avenge his dead father and steer the club into more legitimate business. But as the series progresses, Teller grows more and more disillusioned with the idea and embraces wickedness. He typically has good intentions, and this helps keep Teller sympathetic throughout his increasing villainy. It’s a tricky balancing act, but showrunner Kurt Sutter and actor Charlie Hunnam pull it off flawlessly.

#5: Vic Mackey
“The Shield” (2002-08)


This borderline hateful man served as a refreshing twist on the well-worn police procedural. Mackey ends the pilot episode by killing another cop in cold blood, and it only goes downhill from there. Vic acts in an increasingly corrupt and selfish manner throughout the series, complete with numerous killings and beatings. He often toes the line between anti-hero and outright villain, as in many ways, he acts as an unsympathetic villain protagonist. His blunt personality and abhorrent actions were revolutionary in early 2000s TV, taking the concept of the antihero and pushing it to its absolute limits. In many ways, the character of Vic Mackey was a successful experiment in seeing how far they could go.

#4: Omar Little
“The Wire” (2002-08)


Omar Little is a great character, providing “The Wire” with a near mysticism in an otherwise grounded and intensely realistic drama. He is a feared man on the streets of Baltimore, as he robs low-level drug dealers. The mythical aspect comes through in his approach and reputation. The drug dealers see him as a boogeyman of sorts, and he often arrives whistling A-Hunting We Will Go and sporting a duster and bulletproof vest. He’s like a living legend, and this proves instantly magnetic and enthralling. He also richly dismantles the stereotypical street criminal through his homosexuality, kind heart, and stringent morality. On a show filled with great anti-heroes, Omar Little proves the greatest.

#3: Dexter Morgan
“Dexter” (2006-13)


In the hands of the wrong actor or less talented writers and directors, Dexter could have easily come across as spiteful and unlikable. He is a heartless and selfish person who literally can’t empathize with others owing to his sociopathy. He is also a serial killer, even though the people he kills are serial killers themselves. But the writing proved complex and three-dimensional, and Michael C. Hall provided Dexter with some much-needed levity and likability. He’s certainly not a good person, but he’s a transfixing character who pushed the limits of the anti-hero and provided TV fans with some of the most engrossing drama in years.

#2: Walter White
“Breaking Bad” (2008-13)


Those who watched Bryan Cranston on “Malcolm in the Middle” couldn’t believe that he was playing a drug dealer. But Cranston gave a masterclass in acting, completely disappearing into the character of Walter White and winning four Emmys for Outstanding Lead Actor. Walter’s transformation from a likable, down-on-his-luck schmuck to a cold-blooded killer and egotistical tyrant is nothing short of amazing. It’s the result of impeccable acting and writing. It’s arguably the greatest and most transformative character arc ever seen on television, and watching it progress was nothing short of mesmerizing.

Before we unveil our top pick, here are a few honorable mentions.

Kenny Powers, “Eastbound & Down” (2009-13)
Kenny Is a Massive Narcissist with a Penchant for the Profane

Barry Berkman, “Barry” (2018-)
A Professional Hitman With a Love for Acting and Performance

Dr. Gregory House, “House” (2004-12)
A Sherlock Holmes-ian Doctor With the Worst Bedside Manner Imaginable

Jackie Peyton, “Nurse Jackie” (2009-15)
A Drug Addicted Nurse Who Makes Some Grossly Unethical Decisions

Boyd Crowder, “Justified” (2010-15)
A Good Friend of Raylan’s Who Has Turned to Criminality

#1: Tony Soprano
“The Sopranos” (1999-2007)


Of course, none of these characters would exist if it wasn’t for Tony Soprano. Tony is perhaps the most influential and revolutionary anti-hero ever seen on TV, and “The Sopranos” kickstarted a wave of similar crime dramas with anti-hero protagonists that spread throughout the 2000s. His influence aside, Tony is also a rich and deeply compelling character in his own right. His life and story touches on many themes regarding 21st century America, and he loves his family just as much as he hates his enemies. His flaws are numerous and hard to overlook, but he also proves both likable and relatable. James Gandolfini, David Chase, and Chase’s team of writers and directors worked cinematic magic and made TV history in creating Tony Soprano.
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